‘Three lives changed forever in an instant’ is the tagline on the cover of The Incident, which is the debut of Scottish writer Kenneth Macleod. Reading this, and the blurb, I thought that the novel would be about the ripple effect of events, sort of like Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap, tracing the consequences of one event through time and space. And this is sort of true. The novel begins at the end; Craig, the narrator, tells us what will happen – the death of two children under his watch as a lifeguard – and then we have a kind of ‘twelve hours earlier’ scenario.
To explain why he is a lifeguard, Craig takes us back to his grandfather’s fraught near death experience during the Second World War. When the freighter he is working on as a merchant seaman is torpedoed, Craig’s grandfather survives by spending a grim night staying afloat by clinging to a charred corpse. After this, he spends his life obsessed with making sure other people can swim, hence Craig is a strong swimmer and lifeguard. We can see the continuity here, and up until about a hundred pages in, the story is quite interesting and maintains a bit of pace.
At the point though, it goes wildly off, into the personal history of a colleague of Craig’s, Gerd. This story takes up a third of the book and concerns his youthful involvement with, and betrayal by, the East German Stasi. After this aside, we return to Craig’s narrative, which, so slowly it’s a bit painful, brings us to his moment of crisis: the deaths of the children.
There are some moments of genuine power in the writing; when the deaths occur, for instance, and the other darkest moments, for Craig’s grandfather and Gerd alike. These moments are also representative of the single coherent vein that can be said to run through the narrative: the characters are all faced with the terrifying reality of their own mortality, characterised in the writing by vast open water. I don’t know if it was all as powerful as I thought, or whether it seemed to be so because I’m scared of the sea, but this was the one redeeming feature of the novel for me.
Other than this, it felt clumsily written and structured. The different narrative strands are not well arranged in relation to one another, and the progression of Craig’s narrative quickly gets frustrating, littered as it is with cliché. Frequent statements tempting fate are made by the protagonists (Holger: ‘after the hassle we’ve had this morning I can’t imagine that anything else will go wrong. The world’s thrown enough at us for one day, don’t you think?’ Craig: ‘Ever heard of bad things happening in threes?’). Various children appear to be in varying levels of danger at different points, which is obviously meant to build suspense, but just feels contrived.
On top of all this, the majority of Craig’s narrative is an achingly dull step by step of his entire day leading up to ‘The Incident’, including what he eats, his three kilometer swim, reams of moronic ‘banter’ between him and various men he works with, and some titillating moments with his two dimensional love interest. The Incident is a prime example of the importance of cutting. In terms of what actually services the plot and holds the attention, this book could realistically be halved, if attacked by a ruthless editor.
Any Cop?: There is a pearl of wisdom from a passing character that struck me as awkwardly accurate in relation to how The Incident can be summed up:
‘The different between bad soap opera and good art is the quality of the writing, not the essence of the plot, wouldn’t you say?’
Yes, actually. And I know which one this is.